April 6: Labour is back on HS2 track

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LABOUR LEADER Ed Miliband’s endorsement of high-speed rail is welcome – and should help to draw a line under the scepticism of Ed Balls, who has openly questioned whether the country can afford to spend up to £50bn on HS2.

If Britain is to enjoy super-fast trains which are commonplace on other continents, and which are necessary here if capacity on the rail network is to be increased, a new network does need to be built between London, the Midlands and the North.

However, it will not happen overnight. HS2 will take at least two decades to construct – the lifetime of five full-term parliaments – and will require successive governments to see this scheme, the largest construction project ever undertaken in Britain, through to its conclusion.

If there is a continuation of the stop-start decision-making that has stalled so many road and rail schemes in this country, and which primarily stem from the tendency of Ministers to put short-term political interests before the UK’s long-term infrastructure needs, commuter services will become even more overcrowded and embryonic plans to build a HS3 high-speed line across the Pennines will also fall by the wayside. In this regard, Mr Miliband is right – high-speed rail from the capital to the North must go hand-in-hand with improvements in the North if the Yorkshire economy is to have the best chance of competing with rival regions.

Having provided some much-needed clarity on HS2, Mr Miliband needs to use the launch of his party’s manifesto to be more specific on Labour’s spending commitments. Despite opposing most of the cuts that the Tories and Lib Dems have implemented over the past five years, the jury is still out on Mr Miliband – many voters are not convinced by his leadership and whether Labour’s plans are affordable or not. Having now committed his party to the cost of high-speed rail, money which many of Mr Miliband’s candidates wanted spending on other policies, the Labour leader needs to set out how he would balance the books – the public have a right to know.

Out for the count

SHOULD voting be compulsory? If current trends continue and more than one third of the electorate abstain from their democratic duty on May 7, the calls for radical reform are likely to intensify.

It is a point highlighted by the Institute of Public Policy Research today as voters switch off from the negativity of the campaign to date. In assessing levels of apathy, and specifically the disproportionate number of young people or individuals from socially disadvantaged backgrounds who are disengaged from politics, academic Mat Lawrence believes that first-time voters should be compelled to vote so they are encouraged to take their civic duties more seriously for the rest of their lives.

It would be regrettable on three counts if Britain went down this route – it would be difficult to implement; enforcement could alienate young people and all voters should be treated as equals.

In many respects, the answer should not rest with political academia but the major parties themselves. If they could prove their trustworthiness and gave people a positive reason to vote rather than abstaining, this debate would be immaterial. It is one lesson that the Westminster parties should be learning from Scotland where the passion generated by last autumn’s independence referendum has had a galvanising effect, hence the likelihood that turnout north of the border will outstrip the rest of the UK on polling day.

Just another day: Is Easter being undermined?

IT is emblematic of these times that family holidays over Easter will, in many instances, be interrupted by work-related matters. This is a price that society now pays for the omnipresent mobile phone becoming so sophisticated. Work-life balance is important; neglected children are less likely to grow into responsible parents and it is a sad sign of the times that mothers and fathers believe that answering emails is more important than spending quality time with their offspring.

However, it is also revealing that a major survey on family life should come 24 hours after Easter Day. Though this is one of the most significant occasions in the Christian calendar, it did not even lead to a cessation of general election campaigning – leading politicians slugged it out in the TV studios – and it did not preclude metro stores from being open all hours and receiving deliveries. What does it say about the country’s values when Easter is in danger of becoming just another day?